In the 12 months prior to April 2009, groups recognized by the United Nations Security Council as associated with al-Qa`ida [1] carried out operations in, or directly affecting, 22 countries [2]. They attempted to carry out operations in 10 others [3]. The assault on Mumbai in November 2008, believed to have been carried out by Lashkar-i-Tayyiba, was the only attack that met the standard of global coverage and visual impact that the world generally associates with al-Qa`ida, but the overall range of attacks shows that the al-Qa`ida network, however loose-knit, remains very much alive.

Each country is responsible for its own security, and operational counterterrorism activity generally takes place at a national level. Yet, given the international nature of the al-Qa`ida network [4], there is a clear need—and universal support—for a coordinated international response. In this respect, the United Nations plays an important role. The United Nations contributes in three ways: the General Assembly, comprising all 192 member-states, builds political support for international action to counter terrorism and provides legitimacy by drawing up international legal agreements; the Security Council, with its five permanent and 10 elected members, promotes coordinated international action by designing counterterrorist measures mandatory for all states; and the United Nations bureaucracy provides mechanisms that coordinate, monitor and assist states with the implementation of the policies and agreements decided by the General Assembly and the Security Council [5]. This article explains these three entities, examines which of al-Qa`ida’s weaknesses can be exploited, and identifies five steps the United Nations can take to help defeat al-Qa`ida.

The General Assembly

Since 1963, the United Nations has elaborated 13 international instruments to counter terrorism and three additional protocols [6]. These have defined specific acts of terrorism and have provided a legal framework within which to address them. In September 2006, the General Assembly adopted by consensus a broad strategy to counter terrorism and identified five main areas for action: 1) addressing the conditions conducive to terrorism; 2) preventing and combating terrorism; 3) raising the capacity of states to counter terrorism; 4) strengthening the role of the United Nations in counterterrorism; and 5) ensuring respect for human rights when countering terrorism [7]. Given long-standing differences over the definition of terrorism, the adoption of the strategy by all 192 member-states was a remarkable show of unity and determination.

The Security Council

The Security Council focused on al-Qa`ida following the attacks on the U.S. Embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam in August 1998. The next year it adopted resolution 1267, from which it developed a worldwide sanctions regime directed against al-Qa`ida and the Taliban following the attacks of September 11, 2001. The Security Council’s role has been controversial, both because counterterrorism is more traditionally the preserve of the General Assembly, and because its sanctions regime has given rise to legal challenges. Sanctioned parties have challenged the legality of the restrictions against them on the grounds that the procedures adopted by states to implement the Security Council directives ignore their basic rights, in particular the right to be heard and the right to an effective judicial review.

These legal challenges have not yet put any country in the uncomfortable position of being unable to implement a mandatory resolution of the Security Council without contravening its own laws. This may happen, however, and it is clearly a pressing task for the Security Council to find a way to maintain its authority without losing the willing support of the international community [8].

The United Nations Bureaucracy

There are four main bodies that deal with counterterrorism within the United Nations bureaucracy: 1) the Counter-Terrorism Executive Directorate (CTED) helps to monitor the implementation of Security Council Resolution 1373 (2001) [9], which obliges states to establish the legal means to take a range of counterterrorism measures; 2) the Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team helps to oversee the sanctions regime established by Security Council Resolution 1267 (1999) against al-Qa`ida and the Taliban; 3) the Terrorism Prevention Branch of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime in Vienna (UNODC) provides training and assistance to states in the legal sphere [10]; and 4) the Secretary-General’s Counter-Terrorism Implementation Task Force (CTITF) helps to implement the global strategy adopted by the General Assembly in 2006 [11]. These four bodies cooperate closely and coordinate their work to provide member-states with a coherent picture of the international strategy to counter terrorism.

Exploiting Al-Qa`ida’s Weaknesses

National and international action has reduced the influence of the al-Qa`ida leadership and weakened its ability to launch attacks in all areas except South Asia [12]. Pakistan appears to be al-Qa`ida’s base, and the success or failure of measures to defeat it there will decide its long-term future. Yet the task is exceptionally difficult, and the greatest burden by far will fall on authorities in Pakistan. In parallel to whatever military and political action Pakistan may take on its border with Afghanistan, there is much that the United Nations and others can do elsewhere to undermine al-Qa`ida’s image and appeal.

Al-Qa`ida has a number of weaknesses. First, it appears that it is losing credibility with potential sympathizers and supporters, highlighted by its present failures in Iraq. Furthermore, while it threatens major attacks against Western targets, it has done nothing successful in the West since the attacks in London in July 2005. Second, it lacks relevance. It has made no useful contribution toward resolving any of the main political issues affecting the Muslim community that it claims to defend. For instance, it has not helped the Palestinian people despite often repeating that their plight is a principal motivation for its actions [13]. Its principal affiliates have an equally poor track record of achievement, having failed to benefit the people of Iraq, Algeria, Saudi Arabia or Yemen. Third, it lacks legitimacy in parts of the Muslim world, even in extremist circles. It has no religious authority and its self-serving interpretation of Islam has come under increasing attack from radicals with better credentials.

The United Nations provides an ideal forum from which to expose and exploit these weaknesses. In fact, the United Nations is in many ways the natural global adversary to the global terrorism preached by al-Qa`ida. The values identified with the United Nations—such as democracy, individual human rights, the freedom of religion and the promotion of peace—are the exact values and fundamental freedoms that al-Qa`ida rejects [14]. Not only does al-Qa`ida condemn the General Assembly and the Security Council as expressions of secularist state politics, it also criticizes the work of UN specialized agencies and peacekeepers—especially those operating in areas of conflict and weak government—as unwarranted and unwelcome interference on behalf of Western interests [15]. Indeed, al-Qa`ida has mounted two direct attacks against the United Nations: in Baghdad in August 2003, and in Algiers in December 2007.

Five Steps for the United Nations

The United Nations can help to bring about the defeat of al-Qa`ida in five main ways. First, it must uphold and promote its core values in counterterrorism work. The United Nations is uniquely able to bring governments together to address topics of global concern in a neutral setting. It can also isolate an issue from any broader context to allow states to discuss joint work on terrorism even when they have deep bilateral differences on other issues. This convening power allows the United Nations some influence over the way that states plan and execute their counterterrorism strategies, and it can use this influence to promote the argument that any sacrifice of basic rights in the fight against terrorism not only hands the terrorists a victory, but pushes more people to support them.

Second, the United Nations can weaken the appeal of al-Qa`ida’s message by resolving long-standing political disputes. Al-Qa`ida exploits the sense of frustration and helplessness that exists where government is weak, where conflict prevails and where justice is arbitrary. The United Nations must, on the one hand, find solutions to these long-standing problems and, on the other hand, continue to explain why terrorism is counterproductive as a tactic. The more progress that the international community can make through discussion and negotiation, the more marginalized al-Qa`ida will become.

This means that the United Nations should use the range of tools available, from the imposition of sanctions to the deployment of peacekeepers and aid workers, in a coherent manner and within a strategic framework. This should include, for example, reconciliation talks in Afghanistan, development projects in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas of Pakistan, support for the authority of Shaykh Sharif Shaykh Ahmad’s government in Somalia, capacity building in the Sahel and Yemen, and similar assistance in other vulnerable areas.

Third, the United Nations can highlight the real consequences of al-Qa`ida’s actions. It is easy enough to demonstrate that the victims of terrorism are members of the same community from which the terrorists themselves are drawn, whether in terms of immediate death and destruction or in terms of the longer lasting economic or other indirect consequences [16]. When governments point this out, there may be a tendency for some audiences to discount the message as propaganda; less so when the message is promulgated by the United Nations. The CTITF has a working group that focuses on the victims of terrorism, and has projects agreed with three states to film repentant terrorists and their victims to demonstrate the similarities between them; these will be ready for release through major national and regional networks in the second half of 2009. In addition, the film project will make brief clips of repentant terrorists for distribution through the internet, designed to dissuade others from following their course.

Fourth, the United Nations can undermine al-Qa`ida by attacking the legitimacy of its arguments. This should not be done by joining in a debate, which would give al-Qa`ida more standing than it deserves, but by providing support and encouragement for rehabilitation and reintegration programs that demonstrate the falsity of the arguments used by al-Qa`ida and its associates to justify their violence. People who leave terrorism behind are likely to return to the environments from which they were recruited and therefore may be able to influence others with similar vulnerabilities to the al-Qa`ida message. Several states have such programs and other countries have recently asked the United Nations for help in starting them. The United Nations can compile examples of best practices and help craft programs, while taking account of different cultural and social conditions.

Finally, the United Nations can attack the spread of al-Qa`ida’s message. This is the hardest target of all. Al-Qa`ida has managed to weave a seductive narrative that appeals to a wide audience. It offers meaning and action at a time when many people feel they lack purpose and opportunity. It preys on a wide range of grievances and knits them together in the single complaint that Western influences have undermined the political and social values of Islam. Al-Qa`ida has built an enduring myth around its leadership as men of purity and conviction, able to strike massive blows against a powerful enemy and successfully escape retribution. The United Nations can best counter al-Qa`ida’s message by stressing repeatedly the criminal nature of its activity, its absence of any real vision for the future, and its lack of concern that the majority of its victims are Muslims.

Al-Qa`ida’s appeal will decline if the leadership is captured or killed. Short of this, even if the leadership is forced into still more remote areas, use of the internet will continue to give it a wide audience. The CTITF has set up a working group to look at terrorist use of the internet. Its general conclusion concerning the promulgation of the al-Qa`ida message is that an open internet that allows the exposure of al-Qa`ida’s message to criticism, and even to ridicule, is more effective in limiting its appeal than any attempt to shut down forums and websites that promote it [17].


The United Nations must work with others to expose the gap between the promises made by the al-Qa`ida narrative and the reality of what it delivers. It can also help to promote a counternarrative through the engagement of civil society, focusing this work on those who are tempted to join al-Qa`ida, rather than those who have already done so. Hardened al-Qa`ida supporters are more likely to retreat further into their closed groups in the face of criticism than question the basis of their beliefs.

To maximize its contribution to the defeat of al-Qa`ida, the United Nations must increase the credibility, relevance and legitimacy of its counterterrorism work as a contrast to the irrelevance, illegitimacy and ineffectiveness of al-Qa`ida. It must play the leading role in coordinating and promoting international action to overcome the threat from global terrorism.

Richard Barrett is the coordinator of a New York-based team appointed by the UN Secretary-General to advise the Security Council on the development and implementation of a sanctions regime aimed at individuals and groups associated with al-Qa`ida and the Taliban. He is also a member of the Secretary-General’s Task Force, established in 2005 to promote a coherent approach to counterterrorism within the UN system. In his Task Force role he has responsibility for issues to do with radicalization and extremism that lead to terrorism, terrorist use of the internet, and terrorist financing. Before working for the United Nations he had a full career with the British Government.


[1] For a list of groups established and maintained by the UN 1267 Committee as associated with al-Qa`ida, Usama bin Ladin, the Taliban and other individuals, groups, undertakings and entities associated with them, see

[2] These countries include: Afghanistan, Algeria, Austria, Canada, China, Ethiopia, France, Germany, India, Iraq, Italy, Mauritania, Niger, Pakistan, the Philippines, Somalia, Switzerland, Tunisia, Turkey, the United States, the United Kingdom and Yemen. Israel suffered an attack from an unlisted group calling itself Al-Qa`ida in the Levant.

[3] These countries include: Denmark, Egypt, Libya, Morocco, Nigeria, the Russian Federation, Saudi Arabia, Spain, Sudan and the United Arab Emirates.

[4] This includes al-Qa`ida’s core leadership, its established regional affiliates, and the propagation of its ideas to homegrown or self-recruited cells.

[5] For a comprehensive presentation of UN action against terrorism, see

[6] To view the UN Treaty Collection on terrorism, see

[7] This is drawn from the United Nations Global Counter-Terrorism Strategy, which was adopted on September 8, 2006. For the entire document, see

[8] For an overview of the legal challenges and a discussion of their impact, see the Al-Qaida and Taliban Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team’s reports, available at

[9] The website for the UN Counter-Terrorism Committee can be accessed at

[10] For more on the UNODC’s role in terrorism prevention, see

[11] See

[12] More specifically, in all areas other than Afghanistan and Pakistan.

[13] Usama bin Ladin issued an audiotape on March 14, 2009 again asserting this, although admitting that al-Qa`ida had done little to help the Palestinian people.

[14] Usama bin Ladin’s March 14, 2009 statement criticized freedom of opinion and freedom of speech.

[15] For example, al-Zawahiri’s statement on Sudan, released on March 24, 2009, criticized the United Nations for inaction in Gaza while it “pretends to cry over the suffering of the people of Darfur.”

[16] For example, the CTITF organized a symposium on Supporting Victims of Terrorism in September 2008.

[17] “Report of the Working Group on Countering the Use of the Internet for Terrorist Purposes,” UN Counter-Terrorism Implementation Task Force (CTITF), February 2009.

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